* Beijing started inspecting Irish facilities in 2014
* Opening new markets part of response to Brexit - minister (Adds confirmation, quotes from minister)
By Graham Fahy
DUBLIN, April 16 (Reuters) - Ireland will become the first European Union country to gain access to China’s fast-growing beef market after its agriculture minister said on Monday that Beijing had approved imports from three Irish processors.
Beijing banned imports of beef from European countries and the United States following outbreaks of mad cow disease in the 1990s but worries about the disease are subsiding following more stringent inspections on foreign arrivals.
Ireland succeeded in getting its curbs lifted alongside the United States and South Africa last year following years of lobbying. China started inspections of Irish meat export facilities in 2014.
“I understand that the Chinese authorities will list a number of our beef establishments within the next few days,” Irish Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said in a statement.
The approval gives Ireland access to the world’s fastest-growing beef market and second largest importer for the first time and a spokesman for the agriculture department said five other Irish beef plants were awaiting approval.
Demand for red meat in China, the world’s second-largest economy, has risen strongly in recent years due to rising incomes and a richer diet.
China is already Ireland’s third largest market for agricultural exports, increasing roughly five-fold to 1 billion euros last year from around 200 million euros in 2010, and the second largest for dairy and pork products.
Irish beef is one of the sectors most vulnerable to the potential effects of Brexit. Ireland is widely considered the EU member most at risk when Britain leaves the bloc due to its close trading links with its nearest neighbour.
“Opening and developing new markets is also a key part of our response to the uncertainties arising from Brexit,” Creed added. (Reporting by Graham Fahy and Dominique Patton in Beijing; editing by Padraic Halpin and Louise Heavens)